As a divorce attorney, I argue for a living. I've joked with my children, from time to time, when steadfastly refusing to allow them to engage in some typical teenage behavior, that I couldn't argue with them about it at home for free because "it wouldn't be fair to my paying customers."

One of the biggest lessons parenting has taught me: You can argue with someone and still love them very much. In fact, if you're committed to maintaining a long-term relationship with something as imperfect as a human being, you're going to have arguments from time to time. Maybe the gap between "time" and "time" is mere hours. So, it's a good idea to learn how to argue with someone you love (and plan to continue loving).

My clients are either monumentally bad at arguing or got bad at it over time. I hope that's not the case for you. If you need a primer, some thoughts:

1. Make the holes you dig shallow, because the deep ones are hard to climb out of.
Married fights can be tricky. They start out about something benign, like how generous the pile of fried onions should be on the top of green bean casserole or what's the best way to get to the Flatiron Building from the George Washington Bridge, and the next thing you know you're airing out age-old quarrels that neither of you realized the other was still carrying around ("And three years ago on Christmas, you let your brother say that horrible thing about me!"). Keep disputes focused; don't take current behavior and start extrapolating larger trends in the relationship because, in the moment, it might seem like a good idea to "get them out in the open" and "hash them out." Such leaps are dangerous, and they're dirty pool. When we lawyers are cross-examining even the skankiest people, we're restricted from jumping from the heinous behavior in question to other heinous acts not on the docket. If you're fighting about a specific issue, stick to that issue. You can bring up the old stuff later, after you've worked this one through and are both in a calmer state of mind. Or you may realize, in the interim, that it's best to let sleeping dogs lie. You are surely aware that you can never unsay things you say in arguments. You can apologize, but that doesn't take it back. To test this theory: Take a plate; throw it on the ground; now apologize to it. See what I mean?

2. Identify the subject.
If you're arguing about a specific issue as an example of a larger pattern of behavior, focus the discussion on the larger pattern of behavior. (This may sound like the opposite of the previous point; I don't believe it is.) You're not mad that your spouse deleted the program you wanted to watch from the DVR after he finished it. Well, you are, but that's not what upsets you: It's that he was thinking only about himself in that moment and not thinking about what you might want. Of course that's the key issue—because, let's face it, if the DVR incident was the first time he ever did something like that, you wouldn't be ready to bite his head off. You'd shrug it off. "It was an honest mistake," or "Things happen." But you didn't, because it's part of a larger body of disagreeable behavior. So, get to that general principle first, and use the individual incident (or incidents) as supporting "evidence." Trial Lawyer says: Lead with the big picture and then provide the testimony and evidence to back it up.

3. Don't start something that has no end.
If you married a guy who is short, don't argue with him about how much better it would be if he were taller. The argument is not going to end well. If you're arguing about something that's happened and can't be undone without the aid of a time machine, really make sure it's worth having the argument. Sure, there are times when your spouse did or said something stupid and they're likely to do it or say it again if the behavior is left unchecked. In those circumstances, it might be worth having the argument. The same is true if the behavior is indicative of a larger pattern (such as selfishness, rotten investment skills, an upsetting approach to parenting) that might come up again in different circumstances. If you're just holding a grudge and upset with your spouse about something unrelated and it's impossible to change or undo, tread lightly. We remember the complaints more vividly than the compliments. I would know: I listen to recollections of marital histories for hours and hours, 50 weeks of the year.

If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late From If You're in My Office, It's Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer's Guide to Staying Together, by James J. Sexton, Esq., published by Henry Holt and Company.


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